Scoggins: Decisions under pressure is how NFL coaches make mark

·4 min read

Two rookie NFL head coaches encountered starkly different experiences in their first official showing as the executor of game management.

Kevin O'Connell had a relatively stress-free debut in the Vikings' double-digit Week 1 victory over the Packers.

O'Connell faced fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 5-yard line on his opening series as offensive play-caller. Not only did he go for it, O'Connell scripted a nifty play design to free Justin Jefferson for a touchdown catch. After that, everything was mostly routine.

Kirk Cousins gave his new coach a game ball in the locker room afterward.

A day later, Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett did not receive a game ball after his disastrous debut. Broncos fans were ready to give him a one-way ticket out of town after Hackett botched the final drive of a loss at Seattle with odd decisions that had people screaming at their TVs from coast to coast.

Hackett went against every ounce of football logic by choosing to let his kicker attempt a 64-yard field goal rather than trust quarterback Russell Wilson to convert on fourth-and-5. Hackett admitted a day later he would have handled that situation differently if given another chance.

Things got even worse with Hackett's game management against Houston on Sunday, to the point that frustrated Broncos fans tried to help by counting down the seconds on the play clock to prevent delay-of-game penalties. The honeymoon period didn't last long.

The hot seat doesn't grant do-overs, only scrutiny and second-guessing. Hackett's shaky start reinforced the notion that for all the exhaustive research and vetting that organizations conduct in hiring a coach, they cannot fully account for how any coach will handle managing a game once the ball gets kicked off and the pressure of the moment skyrockets.

A coach's acumen in handling those critical game situations — end-of-half sequences, challenges, timeouts, fourth-down situations, etc. — often defines his reputation and ultimately determines whether he wins enough to keep his job.

Coaches talk all the time about how much practice time they devote to rehearsing those moments, which is no doubt true. But too often coaches fail the test with those opportunities in games. Mike Zimmer's game management routinely left observers fuming, particularly his clock management late in a half.

An NFL sideline can feel chaotic. The emotion and intensity and stadium noise add stress to a situation that requires mental clarity. It's easy to understand why coaches might get distracted or not think clearly when they are afforded only a few seconds to make a decision that seems painfully obvious to those of us who won't get second-guessed if it goes wrong.

But that's their job. The good ones thrive in those moments, or at least have fewer instances when their decisions backfire.

In assembling his first coaching staff, O'Connell did something that should be standard procedure for every organization: He hired a game management coordinator, Ryan Cordell, to assist him with those situations. O'Connell also brought in former Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine to serve as assistant head coach.

O'Connell is smart enough to realize that he needs help in processing those bang-bang decisions that influence wins and losses.

"We can sit down, really week-to-week, and have a dialogue on what it's going to take to win a football game," O'Connell said this spring after finalizing his staff. "From a situational aspect, how do you want to play the end of the first half? The end of the game? How aggressive do you want to be, depending on the game flow, but who is the quarterback on the other side?"

O'Connell said the objective for himself, his staff and his team is to become "situational masters." That includes dissecting and reflecting on different situations from various games that impacted outcomes.

"You're going to see five, six, seven scenarios come up in a game where you may not have been thinking about it, or it might not be a page in the playbook, but we better discuss it," he said. "We better talk about it because that could very easily come up."

O'Connell believes game management is a year-round exercise that provides him with data and philosophical tenets to draw upon for split-second decisions. He might encounter one or more of those moments Monday night at Philadelphia in a nationally televised game. The reaction of those warm, welcoming Eagles fans will let him know how he's doing.